SYDNEY 1979 – Sue and the kids had returned to Australia in January while I wrapped up my Maldives consultancy for UNESCO.
I was counting on getting a job in Sydney.
I’d been told by my onetime ABC colleague In Papua New Guinea, Andrew Greig, that an educational radio station, to be known as 2SER-FM, had been licenced for the city and the two universities that held the licence were looking for a manager to get it going.
With my background in developing radio operations and credentials in educational media, I considered myself a fair chance of getting the gig.
I was instructed I’d first have to make myself available to be interviewed by the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University Edwin Webb and the president of the Institute of Technology Ron Werner and their fellow radio station board members.
Meanwhile, UNESCO had offered me a transfer to projects in the United Arab Emirates or Bangladesh. But the Maldives had been especially tough on Sue and the children. Also Simon had hit high school age and a decision had to be made about a return to Australia or splitting up the family.
It was a no brainer. Enticing as it was to pursue an international career in broadcasting, I knew I had to foreclose on my roving days in radio. My family was a much more important consideration.
So, on a sparkling Autumn day in April 1979, I took a taxi from Sydney airport for the half hour trip to Macquarie University to meet the board of 2SER-FM.
Unthinkingly, I asked the cab driver how he was going and copped a 10 minute ear-bashing about how rotten everything was.
When he finally agreed to switch on the radio, the late Brian White was interviewing an official of the Australian Journalists Association who was saying, “She’ll be right, we’ve got the numbers on the ethics committee.”
After two years in the Maldives, it felt decidedly odd on this summery afternoon to be among the eucalypts and concrete of Macquarie University facing a dark suited selection panel of academic heavyweights.
At the end of the interview, which was commendably brief, I was asked to sit just outside in the anteroom as it was intended to make the decision there and then.
After a few minutes, the company secretary Bill Anthes – who had been a remarkable force in winning the broadcasting licence – appeared,
He stared at me, grinned and said, “Well, you’re gonna run this radio station”.
So on that glorious afternoon I was offered the job as foundation manager of 2SER-FM.
Here I was fresh from the Maldives and back in Australia with the assignment of establishing and managing a big city radio station, “immediately if not sooner”, said Anthes, and the haste suited me down to the ground.
Sue, who bore the burden of moving from ‘Windermere’, our small property outside Armidale, selling it and finding schools for Simon and Sally, was delighted to be returning to Sydney after 13 years. It was her home town where her mother and many relatives lived.
We moved into my father’s house on the northern beaches, he relocating to a downstairs apartment, and I began the task of creating an operational radio station. The deadline was October, six months hence.
It was 2ARM-FM Armidale writ large, but I had three months longer to get the station on the air.
There were the same pressures: install the technology, recruit full-time staff and scores of volunteers, engage with academics and the broader community to which we offered access, train people, develop programs, launch a program magazine and begin the process of building a revenue flow.
The station was located on the 26th floor of the Institute of Technology tower on Broadway and the aerial was attached to the roof, which commanded an impressive view across the city to which we would broadcast.
The intent was to also establish studios at Macquarie University early the following year after the Broadway operation was settled in.
It was formidable and exciting. When I first set my eyes on Level 26, 2SER-FM was five spaces which were to become an office, two studios, a sound library and a technical room. The only evidence of their future use was a bunch of wires sprouting from the floor of what was to become the main studio.
Six months later, on 1 October 1979, after enough dramas to provide content for a minor television series, the station began broadcasting.
Last year it marked its fortieth birthday with significant celebrations. Amongst other activities, all the Listening Post magazines published from 1979-1997 were archived by the National Library of Australia. Click the green link ‘Browse in this collection’ to access them
The new station showed the benefit of the associations it had established with the highly regarded communications faculty at the Institute of Technology and with many community organisations which were eager to produce programs to reach a larger audience.
After much discussion 2SER-FM had developed as both an educational access station with a broad view of its educational mission and a pluralistic program policy – no interest would dominate.
It also promised that many of its programs would be different – reaching into subjects and themes other electronic media were under-providing or ignoring.
Amongst the early shows that broke new ground were the current affairs program Razor’s Edge, the controversial Gay Waves, The Fourth R, entirely produced and presented by children, HSC Any Questions hosted by academic Wal Stern, Garry Coxhead and Maurie Taylor’s all Australian country music show, educational programs like Digging up the Past, Inside the Mushroom-shaped Cloud, The Wandering Statistician, Biology on Radio, Mathematical Picnics and many, many more.
And there was a profusion of issue based programs: You Don’t Have to Be Jewish, Islamic Voice, Middle-East Program, Labor Speaks, Into the Streets, The Eco Show, China Today and so many others.
I was at the manager’s desk for four years, the most time I’d been in the one job until that point of my life.
It was across that desk that one of our volunteer announcers, fresh from a nine-month stretch at Long Bay gaol (I’d been his unsuspecting character witness), told me, “Keith, you’d be surprised at the very fine class of person you meet in there”, and then waved disparagingly over his shoulder at producers and announcers crowding the station office, “Better than this lot.”
In front of that desk, I opened up the airwaves to divergent points of view. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The hostility between Serbia and Croatia. Turkish depredations against the Kurds. The tribulations of the people of Estonia, Assyria, Armenia, Ulster, Poland and Lebanon. And the rest.
At times it was like participating in an old Cinesound newsreel in which the major struggles of the globe were fought out in microcosm.
One of the demands on the manager was to mediate between disparate interests while never losing sight of an important principle: to offer the greatest amount of access and freedom to broadcast within the law.
At the same time, I was a severe opponent of gratuitous offence against good broadcasting practice.
So when one afternoon, the literary program consisted of half an hour of grunts, squeals, gibberish and audio feedback, I called the perpetrators into my office and advised them to pick up their game or lose their time slot.
The story of my ‘censorship’ spread quickly and for some weeks I became the Bête Noire of Broadway.
The campaign against me reached a peak in the student newspaper, Newswit, which contained feisty comments on me and my depravities and a hastily shot photo of me that looked like it had been taken by a Box Brownie in a Beirut basement.
And across the top of the page a thick black headline screamed: ‘EAT FASCIST DEATH, MEDIA PIGS!’ The culprits, probably Young Trotskyist students, should have failed their communications subject just for the abuse of an exclamation mark.
But my main concerns were more existential - to prevent an excess of creative zeal and social concern pushing the station into a position where it would cross the line into defamation or, worse still, jeopardise its licence to broadcast.
And if the heads of the universities which held the licence were ever concerned, they never let me know. 2SER-FM was flying free on its wild ride through Sydney.